In 2017, before the pandemic, India had one of the lowest food waste rates per capita (51 kg, 112 lb.) in the world. On the other end of the scale, Australia reached 361 kg (796 lb.), while the United States had 278 kg (613 lb.), the highest rates per capita worldwide—more than the combined reported food waste rates of the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, and Sweden. During the pandemic, when researchers interviewed respondents of similar demographics and gender distribution from the U.S. and Italy about their perceived rates of food waste during COVID-19, the respondents thought their rates of food waste had decreased, with a higher rate of reduction among U.S. respondents than those from Italy. The researchers explained that these decreases in food waste may have resulted from targeted shopping or purchasing foods that address specific issues, such as those that strengthen the immune system, increased cooking time at home due to lockdowns and stay-at-home mandates, food shopping with increased and deliberate planning, intentionally decreasing shopping time at the supermarket, and food shopping without family members who were prone to impulse purchasing.
Concerns about the stability of the food supply were heightened during the pandemic, and no clear answers could be obtained from those who supplied food to the consumers. People with high levels of NFC (need for cognitive closure) during these stressful times depended on clear answers, devoid of ambiguity or confusion, to manage stress. They perceived that they needed more food than usual and characteristically stockpiled food without necessarily using it, resulting in a potential increase of food waste and associated food packaging materials.
In its advertisement during Superbowl LV, Unilever hired a celebrity to offer tips on how to avoid food waste at home. Food waste became trending news. But The Hartman Group clarified that food waste has already been in the forefront of consumer concerns, even prior to the pandemic. The group explained that, during the pandemic, consumer awareness increased such that more than half (56%) of those they interviewed were willing to increase composting food waste. Those were in addition to the 16% who were already composting food waste. Thus, a decrease in food waste during COVID-19 was expected.
A formal association between food waste and the environment was established by the Upcycled Food Association in 2020, resulting in another trending initiative. The new trend is called upcycled food products and is defined by UFA as “new, high-quality products from otherwise wasted—but perfectly nutritious—ingredients” for the world community while benefiting the world. UFA claims that more than 100 company members committed to upcycling food products into new, safe products. The organization has also developed a certification scheme that labels food using upcycled food ingredients or products, which will support their vision to “build the sustainable food system of the future.” This trending association of food waste with the growing global concern for the environment is very attractive to Millennials and the younger generations.
COVID-19 resulted in limited food supplies, higher food prices, limited employment opportunities, and reduced take-home pays; however, the increased time in the home improved the consumer’s cooking practices and food management skills, leading to an improved efficiency in food production at the consumer level that may have led to reduced food waste. In addition, because employment, rather than unemployment, is correlated with increased food waste, decreased employment and income may likewise have led to a decrease in food waste. And, perhaps, due to the scarcity of food supplies during the pandemic, consumers consciously increased their awareness of what they should use without waste.
Thus, available research data seem to demonstrate that the food waste rate has been reduced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
To develop meaningful and relevant strategies, it is necessary to have a harmonized global definition of food waste. To date, strategies recommended to reduce food waste at the consumer level (as presently defined) include ways that many consumers are already practicing because of the conditions imposed on them by COVID-19. I described these practices in my recent article in “Global Interests,” which was published in the December 2020/January 2021 issue of Food Quality & Safety, on the eating and buying behavior of consumers during COVID-19. For example, most consumers now plan their meals ahead and prepare shopping lists of specific foods. They read food labels and choose foods like canned and frozen products, which have a shelf life longer than that of fresh fruits and vegetables. They have increased their food storage capacities at home; many have purchased freezers and additional refrigerators.